The ingredients for ‘panzanella’, a dish of humble cooking that is present in nearly all of Tuscany, other than the stale bread, are based on ripe tomatoes, red onions, basil, oil, salt, vinegar and cucumbers which, however, in some areas such as Siena are not used.
But the diatribe over the ingredients is nothing compared to that of its origins. Many actually attribute the creation of ‘panzanella’ to the way that the farmworkers would soak their dried bread and then eat it with the addition of summer vegetables (the season in which this cold dish would be proposed) which would easily be found in the kitchen gardens. This hypothesis is the most widely believed. But others say that panzanella was created on board fishing boats onto which the fishermen would have taken oil, vinegar, bread and tomatoes and when the bread became too hard it would have been soaked in sea water and left in the juice from the tomatoes. In this way, they would have saved a little oil and vinegar. Boccaccio speaks about this use, defining it as «pan lavato» (‘washed bread’).
The actual name of ‘panzanella’ is also of uncertain origin; let us review the two most believable hypotheses: according to some it comes from the words ‘pane’ (bread) and ‘zanella’ (shell, tureen, soup dish), others instead support the derivative of ‘panzana’ which originally meant ‘pappa’ or bread soup.
Whichever it is, it is certain that this is a very antique dish and has always been much enjoyed. It is enough to remember the verses of the 15th century painter, Bronzino, dedicated to this dish: "chi vuol trapassar sopra le stelle / en'tinga il pane e mangia a tirapelle / un'insalata di cipolla trita / colla porcellanetta e citriuoli / vince ogni altro piacer di questa vita/ considerate un po' s'aggiungessi bassilico / e ruchetta" (‘he who wishes to fly above the stars / dip his bread and eat to bursting / a salad of chopped onion /.with purslane and cucumbers / wins every other pleasure of this life / consider if I were to add some basil / and rocket’).
Obviously, tomatoes are not mentioned because at that time they were not used as a food; when they arrived from America they were considered only as ornamental plants: he does, however, talk about the herb ‘procellana’ (or ‘portulaca’ or ‘sportellacchia’- purslane) which is not used anymore today, and ‘ruchetta’ which has today become a very common herb, but until a few years ago was very difficult to find in the markets (apart from Lazio and Veneto where it is called ‘rucola’ - garden rocket).